PAUL SCORES FIVE POINTS AS USA DEFEATS FRANCE
A slow start for Team USA in its Olympic opener looked more like a matter of getting familiar with their surroundings than any real cause for concern.
They used an 11-point run to open the second quarter, ratcheted up their defense, and cruised past France, 98-71, Sunday in Group A pool play at the Basketball Arena in London.
The United States (1-0) faces Tunisia Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. PT, while France (0-1) takes on Argentina in the preceding matchup.
“We played very well,” said shooting guard Kobe Bryant, who had 10 points in 12 minutes. “In the first quarter we gave up way too many free throws. It made the game a little choppy. It was tough for us to generate some momentum. But then after that we were able to get into a good flow.”
Kevin Durant led the United States with a game-high 22 points and nine rebounds. Lebron James added nine points, five boards, and eight assists, including a dazzling bounce pass to Durant for a fast-break dunk in the opening quarter.
Clippers point guard Chris Paul found Durant for a dunk two possessions earlier after he swiped a bad pass and pushed the ball up the right side. Paul finished with five points, two assists, two steals, and two rebounds in 20 minutes.
The team assisted on 27 of their 31 field goals, but committed 14 turnovers and took some time adjusting to the arena, where they’ve been permitted only hour-long practices since arriving in London.
Paul said he felt like Team USA will only get better. “We’re definitely a team that can get better as the tournament goes. It seems like we get better as the game progresses and we’ve got to continue to do better to get off to good starts. It’s a lot of shots that we leave out there, seems like every game, and our defense can always get better.”
The United States struggled to score the ball in the early going, missing its first six 3-pointers. It also seemed as though the squad needed time to adjust to a high volume of infractions called by the international threesome of officials. The teams were whistled for 23 fouls in the first 15 minutes combined, and Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook were saddled with three fouls apiece in the early third quarter and Paul was among those whistled for palming.
Paul’s dribbling violation came in the waning seconds of the first quarter and France’s Yannick Bokolo responded three seconds later with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from the left wing to cut the U.S. lead to 22-21.
From there, Team USA bludgeoned Les Bleus from beyond the arc. Durant, Bryant, and Paul nailed threes in the first three minutes of the second period with Paul’s coming off a kick-out pass from James as he drove baseline and found the All-Star point guard spotted up in the right corner.
Much like the five-game exhibition tour in the weeks leading up to London, Paul’s role Sunday consisted of distributing the basketball and applying pressure to the opponent’s point guard. His numbers don’t show it, but Paul was adept at both. He and James were the primary initiators of the offense when the United States made their initial spurt.
Paul also disrupted All-Star Tony Parker, who scored 10 points on 4-of-11 shooting and had four turnovers. On one play in the third quarter, Paul harassed Parker into a traveling violation by picking up his defense about 70 feet away from the hoop.
The difference in the game may have been that kind of defensive intensity, according to Anthony.
“In the first half [France] did what they had to do,” Anthony said. “They slowed the game down. They got us to foul them a lot. In the second half, once we figured it out, really settled down on the defensive end, our defense really took off.”
Paul agreed, saying, “We got off to a slow start, got a little bit too anxious, got a lot of fouls early to say the least. Like we’ve been saying all along, our defense is what makes us so good. As long as we go out and do that every night, we’ll give ourselves a chance to win.”
TURIAF CONTRIBUTES FOR FRANCE
Clippers big man Ronny Turiaf, who signed a one-year deal with the team Friday, scored seven points and grabbed a team-high nine rebounds as the starting center for France.
He notched five of his points in the first quarter, including two dunks off feeds from Parker on a pick and roll and another from Mickael Gelabale.
Turiaf switched defensively onto Paul on a pick and roll in the third quarter and after a series of dribbles, Turiaf’s new Clipper teammate missed a jumper from the right elbow.
Later in the quarter, Turiaf showed the kind of energy and effort that appealed to the Clippers when they brought him in. He caught a pass inside, missed a shot at the rim, grabbed his own rebound, and flipped the ball to Nicolas Batum for a layup. It was one of his two assists on the afternoon.